Dinner was a well-deserved feast served on the terrace of La Strada, a restaurant carved into the rock face and overlooking the craggy coastline. The jagged peaks of the Lattari Mountains, rising to heights of 4,700 feet, faded into the darkening sky. In the foothills, the distant lights of Positano began to twinkle.
“Praiano is a treasure missed by most,” said the English-speaking woman at the next table. “All the world flocks to Positano, but here it’s peaceful, and there are still secrets to discover.”
As I glanced over the menu, one dish in particular stood out: grilled sea bass in “crazy water.” Baffled, I quizzed the waiter. “Ah, it’s a special broth of tomatoes, garlic and parsley. It was first made by local sailors in the 12th century, and the original recipe used seawater. But things have improved a lot since then,” he was quick to assure us.
Our anticipation was running high — not just for the crazy water (which proved delicious and not at all salty) — but also for the following day’s walk along the famed Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods). Once peppered with Roman temples, it’s the unequivocal highlight of walking the Amalfi Coast.
Rushing away from Praiano too hastily, however, would have been a mistake, for down the road was another effortlessly beautiful bay by the name of Praia. The dazzling teal sea lapped hypnotically against countless light-gray pebbles as Speedo-clad swimmers capitalized on another sunny day. Fishermen, wearing more conservative attire, huddled together waiting patiently for a catch.
Dominating the bay was a tall and slightly lopsided cylindrical tower called Torre a Mare — the Sea Tower — one of several built in the Middle Ages during Amalfi’s darkest chapter. Savaged by Saracen pirates who sailed in spreading terror, kidnapping women and ransacking villages, the coast endured widespread turmoil.
In fact, much of the region’s past is both brutal and bloody. Shipwrecked Romans took control in the 4th century; the Normans invaded in 1073 and ruled until 1135. The Spanish also had a turn. But Amalfi prospered in times of turbulence. It became an important trading state dealing in everything from spices and ivory to timber from the Middle East and salt from Sardinia.
A closer look at the stone defense tower revealed that the door was ajar. Inside, charcoal portrait sketches covered the walls, and abstract sculptures crammed the sideboards. In the corner, hunched over a piece of clay, was Paolo Sandulli.
An artist famed for his cheeky caricatures of local fishermen, Paolo is something of a local celebrity. For the past 20 years, he has sat on Praia beach quietly sketching anglers and later molding them into figurines.
Now 64, Paolo was born in Avellino, on Italy’s east coast, but holidayed in Praiano as a child. “I was blown away immediately. The colors of the water, all the beautiful fish, the lovely villages,” he reminisced. “My mum and I would wait for the fishermen every morning and took great delight in choosing what we would have for dinner that evening. The beach was our supermarket.”
“Back then, there was only one hotel here and only two restaurants,” he said. “So it’s changed a lot, but I still see beauty everywhere I go.”